Perfumista tip: how to swap for perfume

Bubble Wrap

So, now you've got lots of perfume (or maybe just lots of perfume samples). Let's say you still want more, but your budget is getting strained. Swapping is one way to expand your collection without expanding your credit card debt. It doesn't work for everyone, and in some ways, it's harder (or at least, more time consuming) than it looks, but for anyone who wants to get into swapping, I've assembled a few tips for newcomers. I'm hoping the oldtimers will chime in with helpful comments.

What is swapping?

At the most basic level, you send some of your perfume to someone else, and they send some of their perfume back to you. You can swap samples, decants, full bottles, whatever.

How to swap at MakeupAlley

MakeupAlley is the largest online swapping venue, and also the one with which I have the most experience, so most of this article will focus on MakeupAlley. MakeupAlley allows you to swap perfume, makeup, skincare, you name it — almost anything but prescription drugs. You are not allowed to sell items on MakeupAlley.

1. Look before you leap ~ learn everything you can about the system before you dive in. MakeupAlley has helpful pages (swap features, instructions, FAQ), and you can also find more information at Beverly's Swap Handbook.

2. Create your "My Swap Items" list ~ The swapping system at MakeupAlley is database-driven. Essentially, you start by adding items to your "My Swap Items" list or "swaplist". These are the items you are willing to swap away. For each item, you'll list the manufacturer, product name, how much you have to swap, etc. The more details you provide, the better.

3. Create your "My Wishlist" list ~ These are the items you'd like to receive in exchange for your swap items.

4. Create your Notepad ~ Notepads are optional, but very useful. They're basically blank webpages on which you record whatever information you think potential swappers might want or need to know about you. Some examples of information that might be helpful: "I swap for fragrances only", "U.S. swaps only please", "I like floral scents but hate citrus", etc.

This is also the place to let people know if you're unwilling to consider items other than those that are specifically listed on your wishlist. In that case, your notepad should say "Wishlist only please".

5. Send your first swap request ~ Here is the hard part. You're a newbie. You haven't any "tokens" (tokens are awarded for each swap, and work similarly to the feedback system on eBay) to prove you're a legitimate swapper. Unless you're offering decants of an exclusive fragrance Serge Lutens released yesterday, don't expect anyone to come pounding down your door begging to swap with you.

In order to build up your reputation, you want to swap with others who have already built up a sizeable number of positive tokens. Do some wishlist searches, and see if you can find people looking for the items you've got up for swap. Examine their swap lists to see if they have something you might want, then send a polite note offering to swap your Perfume X for their Perfume Y. Note that you can just say "I'm interested in your Perfume Y", and ask them to look at your swaplist to see if you have anything they might want in exchange, but many people prefer not to scroll through other's swaplists (some are very long). As a beginner, you might do better to offer a specific swap.

Now you wait for a reply to your request. Don't get discouraged if you don't hear back (it is considered polite to respond to all swap requests, but not everyone bothers if they're not interested) or if your offer is refused. Just keep trying. You'll build up a reasonable number of tokens eventually, and then you'll find it much easier to arrange swaps.

You'll find that most swappers will want you to send first until you've earned a certain number of tokens (usually 20, sometimes more). That means they want to wait to receive your item before they send theirs so that they can be sure you're not a "swaplifter" — someone who arranges a swap but never mails their items. When I was starting out as a swapper, I always offered to send first.

6. Exchange addresses ~ After you've agreed on the details of the swap, you exchange mailing addresses. Once that is done, the swap is considered "finalized", that is, you are honor-bound to send your items. Backing out of a swap after addresses have been exchanged is considered very bad form, and can result in a neutral or negative token.

7. Put together your package ~ Make sure your items are clean and labeled. Be aware that most swappers throw in a few "extras". It isn't required, but since most people do it, you'll look stingy if you don't, especially as a beginner. Ideally, you might have a few samples that are on the other person's wishlist that you could throw in, but if not, anything is acceptable. I've received "extras" ranging from tea to skincare samples to little notepads.

Many swappers "wrap" their items in fancy tissue or in little gift bags. This is a nice touch, but not necessary. It is also considered polite to include a little card or note, and this is especially helpful when you're swapping with someone you don't know well, or someone who might be in the middle of 10 swaps and might not otherwise know who sent them this lovely package. Personally, I used to always write a note when swapping with "strangers", but 9 times out of 10 I'd find it forgotten on my desk after I'd already wrapped and mailed everything. Oh well.

Bubble wrap is your friend. Use it lavishly. When I am sending samples, I usually place them in several layers of bubble wrap, then put the whole thing into a bubble mailer. It is also a good idea to mark the package "Fragile -- Glass". If I'm sending a whole bottle, I'm more likely to put it in a box and use packing peanuts, but I know many people send bottles using bubble mailers.

8. Mail your swap ~ Mail your swap items promptly. If you agreed to mail by a certain date and something goes wrong and you can't, let the other party know right away.

Do be aware that it is now illegal to send alcohol-based perfumes through the US mail (as I understand it, perfume oils are ok). All the same, most swapping is conducted through the US mail, and that is all I have to say on that subject.

9. Acknowledge receipt and leave a token ~ It is polite to let the other swapper know as soon as you've received their package. You'll also want to leave them a feedback token.

When I first started swapping, I was mostly swapping makeup. It was considered verboten to actually use any of the products you received in a swap until both parties had received everything and everyone was happy. That way, if there was a dispute, both swappers could send back the items in their original condition. I find this "rule" is not practiced among fragrance swappers, but if you're swapping for something expensive that you couldn't easily replace, you might want to consider adhering to it.

Swapping: the cons

It is easy, especially in the beginning, to let visions of sugar plums dance in your head: hmmm, I can't really afford this bottle of Clive Christian No. 1, but I'll buy it and swap decants from it and end up with tons of wonderful perfumes. It doesn't always work that way. The pool of people dying to have whatever item you're willing to swap might not be as large as you anticipated, or, it may turn out that lots of people want your item but they don't have anything to swap that you want.

You'll find that people have radically different ideas about what constitutes a "fair swap". Some people are dollar-for-dollar swappers, and want to make sure they're getting an item of equal value. Others just want to get a perfume they'd like to try, and don't much care if the values are uneven. Swapping with someone who has a radically different "swapping style" than yours isn't always fun.

If you're mostly interested in mainstream department store fragrances, you may find you have a hard time finding people to swap with. By necessity, many people are eager to swap for decants of fragrances they can't easily get their hands on otherwise. Conversely, if a fragrance is available at Macy's (or Dillards, or whatever), many people would just as soon run over to their local store and use the tester.

Swapping is time consuming. I used to generally send out about 5-10 swaps a week, and that consumed no small portion of time: time to negotiate the swap, time to decant whatever I was swapping, time to examine the other person's wishlist for suitable "extras", and time to package and mail. It's lots easier just to buy samples.

Swaps don't always turn out happy for both parties. One or both of you might find that the item isn't what you expected. Items can break or get lost in the mail. Worst case scenario: you get swaplifted. Do be aware that MakeupAlley does not get involved in swap disputes, so you might want to think twice before you agree to swap expensive or irreplaceable items, especially with swappers you don't know.

Most swappers on MakeupAlley are located in the United States. It can be hard to arrange international swaps — the postage is higher, there's customs to deal with, and it often takes longer for packages to arrive. You'll do best if you've items to offer that can't be found in the US.

Last but not least, you won't always know the condition or provenance of every item you receive. You might get a sample of Perfume Z and not care for it at all, then later try Perfume Z from a tester in a store and — surprise! — find it smells quite different from the sample you got by swap. What went wrong? The possibilities are endless: the perfume could have been old, stale or contaminated, the perfume could have been reformulated since the time your sample was made, it could have been mislabeled, etc.

I can attest to the fact that if you swap often enough, and over a long enough period of time, a little decanted sample that you threw in a package as an extra is bound to come back to you as an extra several years later. For all you know, 10 people have now dabbed from that sample. It might have gone to Moscow and back, twice, first during a heat wave and later during a cold snap. The likelihood that said sample is still in pristine condition is not high. There is an acronym on MakeupAlley, "RIS", which users are supposed to list in the description if an item was "received in swap", but I find it is used much more regularly among skincare and makeup swappers. I almost never see it on fragrance listings. If you want to know where a sample or decant came from, you'll have to ask.

Swapping: the pros

I managed to list quite a few cons. The pro side is shorter, but sweeter: YOU GET FREE PERFUME IN THE MAIL.

Ok, it isn't really free. There's the cost of whatever item you sent out, and the cost of postage (and that can add up over time, especially if you do lots of overseas swaps) and if you're decanting, the cost of those supplies. Still, it feels free, and it's a great way to try lots of new fragrances that you might not otherwise have easy access to.

You might also "meet" some great people with the same perfume addiction problem that you have.

Swapping at Basenotes & Perfume of Life

The two next largest venues for swapping are probably Basenotes and Perfume Of Life.

At Basenotes, the swap system is forum-driven. You post the items you're willing to swap on the "Items for Swap" board. Other people read the posts to find items they might want. In order to post to that board, you'll need to have either a) have paid for "supporting member" status, b) been a member for over a year or c) have posted to other Basenotes boards at least 500 times.

Other key points: Basenotes does allow you to sell items, and there is a separate board for "Items For Sale". To my knowledge, there isn't any formal feedback mechanism at Basenotes — someone please comment if I'm wrong! Update: see Denise's comment below, which explains Basenotes' feedback system.

Perfume of Life's swapping is also done via forum, or at least, it used to be. You can no longer even see the swap board unless you've purchased a "Perfumista Subscription" ($3 a month). As I remember the old swap board, the system was essentially the same as that at Basenotes; you posted the items you had available and other people looked through the posts.

Ok long-time swappers, what crucial things did I leave out??

Note: image of bubble wrap via Wikimedia.

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Parfums Raffy


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  1. Anonymous says:

    What a fantastic, comprehensive post! Thank you for writing this all out!

    I remember my first swap very well. I had a full bottle of SL Vetiver Oriental that I listed on MUA. I certainly had people beating on my door for that one, even if I was a newbie! I managed to get a bottle of La Chasse aux Papillons Extreme (which had not yet been released in the US early in 2005) for it. That was a great swap!

  2. Anonymous says:

    LOL — I'm not surprised you had no trouble, in fact, investing in a few bottles of exclusive SL scents is probably the best way to build up tokens quickly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Excellent analysis, R. I think you got all the pros and cons in there very well.
    For me, the main fun of swapping is getting to know people and creating nice surprises for my friends (old or new). I swap very little now — it just got too time-consuming, and now that I've cut my collection down, I don't have as much to offer.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you! I agree that getting to know people is much of the fun. I was sort of astonished at how much longer my “cons” list was than my “pros” list — I really love swapping, but I think you have to understand what you're getting into and have the right attitude about it or you won't find it fun at all.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I just talked with my local PO about mailing perfume earlier this week. Perfume cannot be sent by air, but can be sent by ground. What this means is that perfume usually can't be sent Priority Mail, since that method almost always uses air, but it can be mailed Parcel Post without a problem, it just takes a bit longer.

    Great post, R, you thought of everything! Swapping perfume on MUA has opened up new worlds of scent to me. I've not been able to buy an expensive bottle to swap decants of, but my collection has still grown tremendously. One thing that has made a difference is that I spend at least a few minutes a day on the MUA fragrance board, and comment several times weekly. Some of my best swaps have come from responding to someone's comment (*I see you'd like to try x, I have some, would you be interested in swapping?*) Good communication is really important so that both parties understand exactly what they're sending and receiving. Swapping can feel like a second job at times, but for me it's really been worth the work. Being able to perform a RAOK (random act of kindness) is a wonderful feeling too!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I should have made it clearer that the perfume shipping info I have is for US domestic mail only. Also, being on the receiving end of a RAOK is awesome, too :).

  7. Anonymous says:

    Rosarita, thanks, I'd forgotten that about ground mail. All the same, almost every swap I receive is via air mail!

    Completely agree that it helps to stay up w/ the fragrance board. Even if you don't find swaps that way, it is nice to “know” who you're swapping with, and also think many people are less willing to swap with people who have never posted on the board.

    So understand what you mean about “a second job”. When I was swapping heavily, I used to set aside Sunday afternoons just to put packages together. I found it fun searching for fun extras that might appeal to the other person. But I can see someone finding the whole thing more trouble than it's worth.

  8. Anonymous says:

    What an amazingly comprehensive guide!
    Little (and not so little) notepads are my absolute favorite swap extras to receive :-)

  9. Anonymous says:

    This is great, Robin.
    I prefer to keep my swapping intimate, i.e., only with people I “get to know” through blogs or forums, where swaps sometimes arise naturally from comments, as Rosarita noted above. I find MUA almost incomprehensible — but I'm not really a forum girl in general.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant post, you reminded me of my swapping days! I used to do loads of swapping (very long time ago though) at MUA but for makeup and skincare only. It was really exciting for me cos I have always been an international swapper, so usually everything I received (including the extras) were completely new to me. Haven't done that for long though cos as you've mentioned, it was really quite time consuming…
    I have nver swapped fragrance though. I just wonder when you decant perfumes, is there any particular bottles that you need to use or particular way of decanting so as to “preserve” the scent?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Paper is always good. I've rec'd some VERY strange extras in my time, but paper is always good.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Well, that is pretty much how I swap now — but I used to be a “production” swapper :-)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Well, people use most anything, glass, plastic, roll-on, spray, you name it. But I'm partial to glass splash bottles. And there really isn't any way to decant so as to preserve the scent: you're going to expose it to air no matter what. That's why you're best off with a “fresh” decant, as opposed to one that's already been swapped around several times.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “To my knowledge, there isn't any formal feedback mechanism at Basenotes — someone please comment if I'm wrong! ”

    At basenotes you can leave feedback on a swap or sale – positive, neutral, or negative, plus a note that can be viewed by all, and one that is private to the person you bought from or traded with (and the admins can see those too). You get a feedback score for the last month, last 6 months, or 12. It is considered “good form” to leave feedback. You can also see the feedback a person has left for others they have dealt with.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Denise, thank you so much, I looked around over at Basenotes but couldn't find anything about feedback. I'll fix the article!

  16. Anonymous says:

    You are quite welcome Robin. Must note that basenotes culture is not swap driven- or at least not on the women's side. Much of the trading that takes place is more in the nature of folks sending around samples for others to try, enjoy and discuss.

  17. Anonymous says:

    As a compulsive organizer, I'm delighted to be able to direct newbies to yet another glorious NST reference.
    In the spirit of “you spray my wrist, I'll spray yours,” you're welcome to yank and use this image I photographed/composed to illustrate fluid quantities. Of course, you don't have to use it either. No hurt feelings here.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hey, great picture! I would like to yank and use it, but in the decanting article instead of this one — I think it would be very helpful to people who were just getting started w/ decanting. Email me & tell me how you'd like me to credit you (nowsmellthis at comcast dot net).

  19. Anonymous says:

    Although there are huge numbers of people swapping at MUA, I think there is lots of that kind of “casual”, non-official sharing going on there too. Also HUGE numbers of bottle splits — that has really mushroomed since eBay forbid the sale of decants.

  20. Anonymous says:

    As a relative newbie, this post is soo helpful! I haven't tried swapping yet, and honestly it looks like an investment of time that I just don't have at the moment so I'll have to resort to buying samples for now, or running into Sephora or Nordstroms when I'm in the area. But I'm going to flag this post for a future time since the idea of getting “free” perfume is alluring : ).

  21. Anonymous says:

    I'm so glad you found it helpful! If you want to get your feet wet, you could just start out small with a few swap items and see what happens — but admittedly, swapping can take on a life of its own AND take over your life while it's at it!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Oh, please do tell!

  23. Anonymous says:

    Gosh, not sure I'll be able to think of many. A sample of a “sanitary” item comes to mind, and once somebody sent me some refills for a dust mop (!) and another time, grocery coupons. But you know, if you've nothing else on hand and you're trying to be nice, that is what counts!

    Some were weird but wonderful: a homemade sandalwood cuticle balm comes to mind, as I was VERY sorry when I'd used it all up. Also, over the years, got many cool things (stickers, tattoos, little toys) for my son. And all sorts of odd chocolate things (one of my other “hobbies”), spices & spice mixes, home-made mix CDs, notecards, candles, a pretty geode, incense, notecards, soaps, cool decanting supplies, unusual teas, you name it. Once someone sent me a whole bottle of an unusual soda from Latin America so I could try it.

    Swapping is fun partly because of all the weird & wonderful stuff you never knew you needed but are so thrilled to receive :-)

  24. Anonymous says:

    My gawd, Robin, your article must have taken hours to research and write. You are incredibly generous with your time, knowledge and experience. THANK YOU.

    I've only been swapping for a month now, with a couple of dear, dear fellow Canadians, and what a joy it is!!! Not only do I have dozens of new niche scents to explore and the chance to share my own stash (helpful to assuage the guilt that kind of major spending tends to attract!!) I have made precious friendships.

    I'm so glad I found Now Smell This.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Robin, thanks as aways for your kind words! It probably did take hours, but it is one of my usual “major procrastination” pieces — have been working on it in little bits for months. So glad you've found some “locals” to swap with, it does make perfume so much more fun!

  26. Anonymous says:

    This is a great picture. There's one thing though. 1/32 oz = 1/4 dram and the chart says 1/6. It's a great image though; very helpful. Thank you.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Not ignoring you…just haven't had time to even look at it today…but promise I will & will see if I can't do something about it.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Islandgirl, you have probably long since lost interest, but it is now fixed :-)

  29. Anonymous says:

    thanks for following up robin.

  30. Anonymous says:

    robin, i just now clicked on the link to add it to my favorites and it still says 1/6th of an oz. is there a different url for the corrected version? this is a very handy chart to keep forever and i can't find it.

  31. Anonymous says:

    The corrected version is here:

    but if you want a larger copy, email me and I'll send you one.

  32. RusticDove says:

    Thanks for the link to this very helpful info Robin! I feel very well informed now. ;-)

  33. Michaelm says:

    Sorry for this late comment, but only recently read this thread. As a guy (although I have no problem with perfumes that lean more towards the feminine, with the exception of white florals perhaps) do you think I would be better off trying to swap on the Basenotes site rather than MUA, or are there male swoppers there too?


    • Robin says:

      You know, I’m not an active swapper these days, but I would have to guess you’d be way better off at Basenotes, although yes, there are definitely men swapping at MUA too.

      Also true though that many people register & list in both places — can’t hurt if you have the time!

  34. Cybele says:

    I tried swapping once on MakeupAlley, send 2 bottles, one new one almost full together with a nice post card and greetings, got nothing back, the person deleted his/her account and disappeared.
    No thanks.

  35. spectrekitty says:

    Sad to say, but apparently, the picture referenced (with a chart, I believe?) seems to be no longer available – at least not at either of those URLs.

    If someone runs across it, pls let us know!

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